Randall Kennedy Takes On the 'Sellout' Label Randall Kennedy talks about the history of the term "sellout" — when the word can be used and why the label has been used to chastise him. Kennedy's newest book is Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal.
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Randall Kennedy Takes On the 'Sellout' Label

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a new book, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy writes that almost no successful African-Americans can avoid the suspicion that they've been favored or corrupted by whites, that they look black but think white. In short, that they're sellouts. He speaks from experience.

Professor Kennedy has heard the charge more than a few times himself. In a new book on the politics of racial betrayal, he describes the long history of the term from slavery and Reconstruction, to Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama, and how it's used as a weapon of black solidarity, rightly and wrongly. Randall Kennedy joins us in just a moment.

Later in the program, we have an e-mail challenge for you. Send us your life story in six words. The address is TALK OF THE NATION - excuse me - is talk@npr.org.

And later, we'll go to the Conservative Political Action Conference - it's underway here in Washington - to hear the reception for Senator John McCain and reaction to the news of Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the race earlier today.

But first: "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." Has the charge ever been leveled at you? Have you ever accused somebody else? Are you afraid of being a sellout?

Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Kline professor of law at Harvard University. His new book is called "Sellout." And he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. And nice to have you on the program today.

Professor RANDALL KENNEDY (Law, Harvard University; Author, "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal"): Thanks so much for having me on.

CONAN: And you write that if we accept that there is a group that we call African-Americans, then some are inside that group and others are not. And in that context, you visit some of the doubts that some blacks express about Senator Obama.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes. Since the beginning of his historic campaign, there have been some people in the black community who have viewed him with suspicion, largely because of his white support. The fact that he has had strong, fervent white support has prompted the suspicion that maybe he's a collaborator.

CONAN: And, indeed, some challenge the idea that the son of an African and American qualifies as an African-American.

Prof. KENNEDY: That's true. There was some talk a while ago about him not truly being black. I don't think many people believe that, but there was some talk of that. His mother is white. His father is a black African. He, himself, of course, is unequivocal in his self-identification. He calls himself black.

CONAN: And yet, you also said - you know, it's interesting he says he did not have a choice in that. Yet, you argue that, well, maybe he did and used Tiger Woods as the example.

Prof. KENNEDY: That's right. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have a black parent and a white parent who refer to themselves as multiracial or refer to themselves as mixed race. He doesn't. He calls himself black, so that his self-identification certainly shows choice on his part.

CONAN: From the results that we've seen in the primaries and caucuses thus far, it looks as if the vast majority of African-Americans appear to have resolved any doubts that they may have had about Senator Obama. But, I wonder, might this be temporary?

Prof. KENNEDY: Oh, I don't think so. And also, I mean, it seems slight implicit in your comment is a suggestion that much of the black support is, you know, just because he's black. Obviously, there are millions of Americans of all sorts who are rallying around Barack Obama because of his admirable personal qualities.

There are some black people, however, still, who are distancing themselves from him because they suspect or they fear that he's insufficiently black. And I argue that, you know, that sort of anxiety often has self-destructive consequences.

CONAN: Part of the reason I asked the question was the initial reaction from African-Americans upon the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, when - they were supportive of him, and then add some more questions and then supported him again after the Anita Hill controversy.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. The longest chapter in my book is devoted to Justice Thomas. His name is virtually synonymous with racial betrayal. I don't see it that way. I mean, I'm very critical of Justice Thomas, but I think it's a mistake to refer to him as a sellout. It's a mistake to view him as engaged in racial betrayal.

His career is full of this talk, though. I mean, his famous or infamous confirmation hearing saw a battle between two sellout narratives. I mean, on the one hand, there were some people who charged his subordinate, Anita Hill, with being a sellout because she was giving information that was harmful to his nomination for a place on the Supreme Court or his confirmation for a place in the Supreme Court.

They viewed her as a black person that's maybe engaging in racial betrayal. And then, of course, there were others who viewed him as a sellout because he's a conservative Republican and a vociferous critic of affirmative action.

CONAN: And part of the cause of that is the belief that someone who benefited from affirmative action now turns around and tries to deny it to others.

Prof. KENNEDY: That's right. I mean, that's one of the criticisms of Justice Thomas. I don't think that's a good criticism. I'm a supporter of affirmative action and I'm critical of his position. But it seems to me that it's not a good argument to say that - to try to disable somebody from being against a policy just because they benefitted from them - from it. What about all the white people who have benefited from white supremacist policies, who have benefited from segregation? Should they be disabled from turning around and repudiating a bad policy? I think not.

CONAN: One of the fascinating parts of your book is just how far back this conversation goes and the understanding that W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, both regarded as heroes today by many African-Americans, called each other traitors to their class?

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes.

CONAN: To the race, excuse me.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. In 1917, W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most celebrated activist, black activist in electoral of the 20th century wrote an article in The Crisis, the NAACP's great paper, in which he called it closing ranks. And he urged black Americans to rally around the American war effort in World War I, and he also urged black Americans to subordinate their protest against segregation.

And when he took that position, some of his colleagues in the NAACP, Monroe Trotter in particular, called him a black Benedict Arnold. When Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most celebrated black activist intellectual of the 19th century, when he married a white woman, he was denounced, roundly denounced by a substantial number of black people who viewed him as having abandoned the race.

So, you're right, this conversation goes way back.

CONAN: And there's almost nothing more stinging than the idea of being ostracized by your own community.

Prof. KENNEDY: That's right. I mean, you know, when you say that somebody is a sellout, you're not just accusing them of being an enemy of the group. You're saying that they are in the group and that they are an enemy. So, people who are traitors are always viewed with more hostility than just mere enemies.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in this conversation. Have you been involved in this kind of controversy at some point in your life as someone who either charged someone else as a sellout or received that accusation yourself? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Let's begin with Angela(ph), Angela is on the line with us from St. Louis.

ANGELA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Angela.

ANGELA: Yes. I wanted to comment that, as you're speaking earlier, how you're ostracized by your community and call this sellout, it seems like it's a double standard. It says you are for, say, Barack Obama, that you're just voting for him because he's black. If you go with Hillary, they're just saying, well, how can we not, putting it forth, you know, a black president. And I find that very deteriorating to the community. It seems like they want you to better yourself, but then once you do, it seems like they - like you said, they're calling you a sellout. And it's like a - it feels like it's a no-win situation.

CONAN: And has that ever happened to you?

ANGELA: Oh, somewhat, yes, I would say that once I've received my master's degree, I noticed more black people are kind of like, oh, I'm kind of surprised by that. But yet, if you weren't getting an education, they question that too, like they're not trying to better the black community. But once you've bettered yourself, then you think you're better than everyone else.

CONAN: So the accusation that you, as Randall Kennedy describes it, look black, act white.

ANGELA: Pretty much.

CONAN: Yeah.

ANGELA: Pretty much.

CONAN: And Randall Kennedy, this is something that, as we mentioned earlier, you have some experience with as well.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, I do. Because of things I've written in the past, I've been called a sellout. Let me quickly add that though my focus is on black Americans, this phenomena is, I think, a universal phenomena.

ANGELA: Right.

Prof. KENNEDY: It's part of all groups. Any group and every group has this anxiety about people within the group not doing enough to advance the group or abandoning the group or betraying the group. So it - this is not peculiar to black Americans.

ANGELA: Right. Right.

CONAN: Angela, do you ever worry that sometimes the charges might be accurate, that you worry about yourself?

ANGELA: Do I worry about - what do you mean by accurate?

CONAN: Well, that you're not doing enough for the group, that you're putting yourself ahead of the group?

ANGELA: Well, no. I felt like I, you know, as an African-American woman, that, you know, from - I felt obligated to do something. Everything that, you know, my ancestors have gone through to put me where I'm able to get an education to do these things, I feel like I would be betraying them more if I were - to not do anything at all.

But it seems like I get more harsh criticism when they find out that, yeah, you are educated, you have a master's degree. All have said that, you know, you're better than everyone else, or, you speak so properly. I get that a lot also. So it's really difficult. It's really difficult.

CONAN: Angela, thanks very much for the call. I know it's not easy.

ANGELA: Thank you too.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

ANGELA: All right. Bye.

CONAN: When we continue our conversation with Randall Kennedy about his book "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal," we'll talk about the uses of sellout language, for example, in the Montgomery bus boycott and during the civil rights era, when it was used by people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Stay with us. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us call: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can check out what other listeners have to say on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Don't forget, we've got an e-mail challenge for you this hour. We want your life story in six words. We'll be talking about six-word memoirs later. But right now: sellout. And it's the kind of insult that really gets under the skin. Hard to define, though, who actually deserves that traitorous label.

Harvard legal historian Randall Kennedy is with us this hour and he question that rash use of the term in his new book "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." You can read about the history of defining racial identity in America in an excerpt from the book at our Web site: npr.org/talk.

And we want to hear your story. Have you ever called someone a sellout? Have you ever been called a sellout? 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Randall Kennedy, I mentioned just before the break that this - you use the example of the Montgomery bus boycott as an instance of where this kind of group identity and ostracism, or the threat of ostracism, proved to be very positive.

Prof. KENNEDY: That's right. I mean, after all, solidarity, group solidarity does have its coercive side. Any time you have a strike, any time you have a boycott, you have to have a way of monitoring to make sure that people will rally around and observe the boycott, observe the strike.

So when the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954, '55 - one of the great moments in American history, my favorite episode in the civil rights revolution - the, you know, the - most black people in Montgomery wanted to stay off the buses to protest segregation.

In the movies, this was presented as a matter of, sort of, you know, sort of unanimous acclamation, as if all the black people wanted to stay off the buses. Well, that wasn't the way it was. There were some blacks who would've preferred to have been able to ride the bus, either out of convenience or maybe even because they were, you know, disagreed with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

But it's quite clear that black people who might have thought of riding the bus were told, listen, if you ride the bus, you will be ostracized in this community. You better not get on that bus. I mean, there was a coercive side to this episode of collective struggle. And under those circumstances, you know, what is one's attitude toward it? My attitude is I'm glad that the bus boycott prevailed. And sometimes, there has to be an exercise of group ostracism. Not all ostracism is bad.

CONAN: Yet, you also raise questions about what some people might see as an unambiguous situation: A slave who inform on other slaves about to - trying to stage a slave rebellion, for example.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. I mean, one of the problems with the idea of betrayal is that it's very complicated. It's sometimes difficult to know. So, I hypothesize, what, you know, what about a slave - I mean, the classic example of the sellout is the slave who tells about a slave rebellion. But just suppose you have a slave rebel who wants to incite a rebellion, but it's quite clear that the rebellion is going to fail, and just suppose one thing that in the - if it does fail, the whole slave community will be in worse shape.

But this rebel wants to - cannot be dissuaded from continuing on his path. Well then if you blow the whistle on him, in order to protect the community, the slave community, are you a sellout? Or, the people who infiltrated Marcus Garvey's organization in the 1920s and testified against Marcus Garvey when he was prosecuted for fraud?

Some of the people who - black people who did that said that they testified against Garvey because they thought that Marcus Garvey was misleading black people, that he was - that he posed a threat to the black community. Well, were they being - were they sellouts if they were, you know, if they truly thought that what they were doing was helping the black community instead of hurting the black community?

The line between, you know, betrayal and something else can be a very blurred one.

CONAN: Let's talk with Guy(ph). Guy is on the phone with us from Sacramento.

GUY (Caller): Hello. Thank you very much for having me on.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

GUY: Yeah. I just wanted to comment/question about, you know, from my inner circle and people that I've grown up around, the definition of a sellout was pretty much anyone on either side of the poverty line, so to say, that either consciously or subconsciously sought to slow down the progress of the black community, whether that be the gangster on the corner, that graffiti and selling drugs, or the guy through his actions slow down the progress of the black nation.

So I would just say that, you know, it's not one or the other, but I would just say that it's a, you know - there's a unity that should be within our group that we see in other nations, the white community, the Asian community, the Latino community that has been stripped from the black community.

Now, whether that be on which side of the poverty line, it doesn't matter. But I would say that, you know, anyone who is not going to help the black community would be considered a sellout. And I'll ask - you know, I'll take my comment off the air, but do you - does he, guest, agree or disagree on that matter. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Guy, thanks for the call.

And Professor Kennedy?

Prof. KENNEDY: I think that's large - I don't disagree. The thing I would say, though, is sometimes it gets very difficult to tell, you know, what is slowing down mean. So, for instance, there's some people who say that some of the entertainers in the hip-hop community are slowing down the progress of the community. There are others who say that, no, these entertainers are helping the community.

Clarence Thomas, one of the reasons why he is against affirmative action is because he says it hurts the black community. I disagree. I think affirmative action helps it, but it gets, you know, there's a debate between what's hurting and what's helping. And we have to also remember that the black community is diverse. Its interests are varied. And so against that backdrop, I think it's difficult to draw real clear lines, and that's why I think that the prudent thing to do is to stay away from the sellout indictment unless you can be extremely, extremely clear about, you know, what's good or on the other hand, what's bad.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Farah(ph), Farah with us from San Francisco.

FARRAH (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Farah, are you there?

FARRAH: Yes. Hello, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, you're on the air.

FARAH: I was just going to say I relate very much to Senator Obama because my mother is Tanzanian, which is a country right next to Kenya and my father is White American. And I've grown up in, sort of, in Tanzania and moved to the U.S. for college and medical school and residency.

And when I meet black people, I - my first - I have a lot of insecurities about not being accepted or not being considered black enough. So when I hear this sort of accusation levied against him, I very much relate to that. And I think it's just a product of sort of his upbringing that he's a little different than maybe mainstream black America. And I think it's unfair that that's held against him.

CONAN: And how do you deal with it when it comes up in your case?

FARRAH: I think I just try and relate to people on an individual basis. I mean, I have a lot of close black friends. But opposite, in large groups, I get very insecure. I think that people will be making judgment from the moment I open my mouth.

CONAN: Hmm. Randall Kennedy, you talk about that sense of insecurity in your book.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. You know, again, in every group, there are - there is this sense of anxiety, either on the part of people who think that others who have upward mobility are going to leave the group.

You know, if you're in a community, for instance, where let's say most people have not gone to college, well, there's this feeling, maybe, that the person who's going to college is going to abandon the group, leave the group.

At the same time, the person who goes off to college might feel some degree of guilt as well. And I - this is certainly the case in black communities, but again, it's also the case in others as well.

CONAN: Farah, thanks very much for the call.

FARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye-bye.

Let's talk now with - this is A.J.(ph), A.J. with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

A.J. (Caller): Yeah. I just wanted to make a comment. This is a common theme with all groups. I mean, John McCain is being labeled a sellout by the Republican Party, and it's leading a lot of moderate Republicans such as myself with a sense of insecurity about where the party as a whole is heading.

CONAN: Indeed, he has been described that way. And Randall Kennedy, one of the things you raise is that in general, this is an accusation that's been used on the left of the political spectrum, though sometimes on the right as well.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes. Certainly in black circles, in black American political discourse, sellout is hugely used by people on the leftward end of the spectrum. But more and more now, you see people on the right using it.

For instance, the term, you know, who is the real sellout? There are conservatives who have been - black conservatives who have been hit by the sellout indictment and they turn around and say, no, we're not the sellouts. The real sellouts are, you know, liberals who were on the Democratic Party plantation. Or, the real sellouts are these rappers who are making black people look bad.

So it's a very serviceable word that people can use in, you know, from varying ideological positions.

CONAN: A.J., thanks very much for the call.

A.J.: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to John(ph), John's with us from Wyoming.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I live in Riverton, Wyoming, in the middle of the Wind River Indian Reservation here. And a comment made a few moments ago saying that the ostracization or selling-out was not solely confined to the black community. It's very true here.

I (unintelligible) classes at the University of Wyoming and had some students from the reservation here. And it's very difficult for them to come from the reservation because they were ostracized by their own people for trying to, you know, so-called make themselves better.

And then, even when they came back, you know, they were - the term here on the reservation is apple, you know? And we're actually trying to do better for themselves, and the rest of the community just thought that perhaps - there was some jealousy or something else. So I just wanted to say you know what, it is not just limited to one ethnic group, for sure. (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Apple, for red on the outside white on the inside?

JOHN: Absolutely, yeah.

CONAN: The equivalent of Oreo, I suppose.

JOHN: Exactly. Exactly. And it was very difficult. The student I have in mind, by the way, ended up doing very well back on the reservation after a very tough time in school. So, thanks for having me.

CONAN: I'm glad that worked out for you.

JOHN: Yup.

Prof. KENNEDY: Absolutely. There's apples, there's Oreos, there's bananas, there is, you know, the phenomena, the acting white phenomena. Again, this is - this problem of being in a community which has an anxiety of betrayal, an anxiety over abandonment, it's a very deep-seated anxiety and it shows itself in a wide variety of ways.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail that we just got from Teresa(ph) in Modesto, California. As a woman who was once on the mommy track, I was regarded as a traitor to the women's movement because I made it clear at work that I wanted part-time work while my kids were tiny because my focus was not on my career. I think a sellout is a woman boss who doesn't accommodate the needs of working parents. So, again, this can cut on both sides.

We're talking with Randall Kennedy. His new book is "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's go now to Reggie(ph), Reggie calling us from Cleveland.

REGGIE (Caller): Yes. My name is Reggie. And back when I was in junior high school, I was in a new school, and I remembered - the thing I remember most is that there are the kids that why did you talk so white, why do act so white? And I'm like, what do you mean? And they're like, you act so white, man. Why don't you just go with the white kids?

And they ostracize me from school, and I never made any friends in high school because of that.

CONAN: That's interesting, Reggie, because to some degree, Randall Kennedy, a lot of this smacks of school ground.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. A lot of the - smacks of what? Say that again.

CONAN: School ground.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes. And actually, you know, there is a way in which, you know, kids taunting the other kid about, you know, you're trying to be the teacher's pet. There is a little bit of that.

The thing about it though is in other context, it's not racialized. In the black community, it is racialized. It's not simply you're trying to be the teacher's pet. It's, you're acting white.

And it's that racial element that puts a special spin on it, and I think especially sharp and especially destructive spin on it within black circles.

CONAN: Reggie, I wonder, how did you deal with it? Did you try to blend in or what?

REGGIE: You know what, I just, say, forget it. I just gave up after awhile and, you know, I became that out kid, the kid no one ever played with, the kid everybody made fun of.

CONAN: That's - I can hear the pain still in your voice, Reggie.

REGGIE: Yes, it was difficult, but I've gotten over it since then.

CONAN: All right. Well, congratulations. Some people never do.

REGGIE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with June(ph). And June's with us from St. Louis in Missouri.

JUNE (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

JUNE: All-righty. I've never been considered a sellout, but I think the problem comes when we can't embrace our own differences, then we certainly can't embrace other people's differences and argue uniqueness.

I'm an African-American gay woman who's educated, 6'3 and a half. So, I've been out of the box a lot of my life. And as a child, I have - I didn't have many friends to play with because I was tall as a child. And so - but as I became an adult and really started the journey back to myself to rediscover myself, I learned to embrace everything that I am and everything that I'm not.

In that way, I can embrace other people and their differences, their differences of opinions and still love that person.

CONAN: Thank - June, congratulations.

JUNE: Thank you.

CONAN: Yeah.

And Randall Kennedy, I think a lot of your book is trying to find that line between dissent and disloyalty.

Prof. KENNEDY: Absolutely. I think that the protocols of disagreement - how do we disagree in a way in which we can press our ideas and press our ideas very powerfully, yet not turn opposition into enmity. I mean, how can, you know, we need to find a way to struggle with one another but not make enemies of one another. And I think the two callers showed another aspect of what's so bad about the sellout indictment.

It alienates people. It alienates people who might otherwise be allies. And that's, you know, that's one - another yet - that's yet another bad feature of the sellout indictment. I mean, you and I could have an argument. We could argue very strenuously. And after, you know, after a period of time, we could say, well, you know, let's carry on our argument over dinner. But if during our argument you've called me a sellout, well, we're not going to go dinner. In fact, we'll probably not going to even talk anymore because to even enter into a disagreement requires a certain level of trust.

And when you use sellout or language like that, you destroy the basis for any trust whatsoever.

CONAN: Randall Kennedy's new book is "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." He joined us today from member station WBUR in Boston. Randall Kennedy, thanks very much for your time.

Prof. KENNEDY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Coming up, give us your biography, your life story in six words. For inspiration, you can find a gallery of illustrated six-word memoirs at npr.org. And later, we'll hear how conservatives greeted John McCain earlier today.

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